Monday, February 6, 2012
When I last went up the mountain to Illumination rock, I had set my next goal at the crater passed Devil's Kitchen, or maybe higher. This past week, the weather and avalanche reports were looking good for Mount Hood after weeks of more typical winter conditions, so I decided to take advantage of a day off, and see how much further up the mountain I could proceed.
I woke up in Portland at 3:30am, and was on the road shortly after 4:00. The plan was to get to the mountain early enough to get to the higher elevations while the snow was still stable. This required beginning the hike before sunrise with the aid of a headlamp. When I arrived at Timberline Lodge, I parked my car among a half dozen vehicles that were in the lot already, and made my way up the now-familiar climbers route to get above the ski area. The beginning of any south approach ascent begins with a trudge up past the Magic Mile and Palmer ski lift areas. From this elevation in the predawn darkness, I could easily see the lights of Portland to the west, as well as the whereabouts of the climbers ahead of me on the mountain from the glow of their headlamps. The sun began to light the skies to the east with gorgeous oranges and reds by the time I was half way up the Palmer lift. Around this time I could see two climbers making their way up the ridge towards crater rock, as well as some light coming from the crater itself and a skier beginning an early morning run from more than 10,000 feet. I took several photos of the sunrise and the light creeping up on Mt. Hood on the various peaks to the south, and then continued my trek to the top of the Palmer lift.
Beyond the softened tracks of the climbers route, the surface of the mountain was slick and icy, making it impossible to proceed without crampons and an ice axe. I stopped here to change my gear out and have a sandwich before continuing to higher elevations. From the top of the lift to all points further up the mountain, there are no set routes and the hard snow and ice on the way up to the crater rarely shows the tracks of previous climbers in the winter, so you're left to find your own way. I followed the crest of the ridge to the east of the snow field below crater rock on my ascent. This probably wasn't the best route. While direct, the icy rock and proximity to the cliffs to the east made this a more difficult and exposed route than I had intended to take. Still, the views were stunning, and with some effort, the ridge route brought me to just under the east side of crater rock, ready to climb past Devil's Kitchen and into the crater itself. This last bit is particularly steep, and care must be taken to get good footing and maintain balance above the eastern cliffs.
As I entered the crater, the smells of sulfur intensified with the proximity to Devil's Kitchen and the various other fumaroles on the crater. I stayed close to the eastern edge of crater rock and made my way up to the hogsback. Another steep climb and I approached the spine and continued up the edge to the area of the bergschrund, which is most typically a crevasse where the glacier has pulled away from the rock of the mountain, but today was just a light indentation that had been filled with recent heavy snow fall.
At that time, I saw another climber up close for the first time on this trip. He was descending the mountain from the area of the old chute route, and we met at the bergschrund. He described his climb, and we discussed the conditions on the various routes to the summit. The pearly gates were described as a bit too icy to ascend without a second ice tool. The old chute and mazama chute routes were softer, but there was concern that the loaded chutes might be unstable after a morning of warm temperatures and intense light. At this point I decided to descend with the first climber, his partner, and another climber that also decided to turn back given the current conditions on the upper slopes.
Stopping just 500 feet from the summit was difficult, but I had already climbed higher than I intended to, and the mountain isn't going anywhere. I'll have to go again the next time the weather and avalanche reports are favorable, and wake up a bit earlier than 3:30 this time around.